How to Write When You’re Taking a Break

Last Tuesday, my book entered the beta stage. I sent it out to half a dozen trusted readers to see what they think. This has come after a first draft (which produced an unreadable, poorly-paced, plot maze) and a second draft (confusing, better paced, and plotted), and a third, clean-up draft (as good as I could make it by myself; finally able to show it to others without crippling humiliation). I’ve asked my readers to go through the novel over the next month, and then they can give me feedback in exchange for beer.

What this means, of course, is that I’m not actively writing a novel right now. Since it’s been a week, I’ve properly let myself decompress (decompose?) after a push toward the finish, but I’m now feeling that void: I have nothing to do first thing in the morning, and there’s only so much sports news in the middle of the summer.

I have fully imbibed the writer’s adage: “I must write. It is my purpose. It is what I can give to the world.” (We do this, of course, to trick ourselves into actually writing.) The problem is that, for the next month, I have no purpose.

It seems my options, then are: a) spend the next month drinking and growing my beard as long as possible, plus wearing sweatpants in the middle of the day, or b) find a new way forward–fulfilling my purpose without working on my novel.

If I choose b, however, the problem is compounded by the fact that after the draft of a novel, it’s like I’ve finished a marathon: I’m tired, spent, and need a break to let the paralyzing soreness subside.

So, like a marathon runner, how do I hit the pavement again in a way the brings energy and sustenance, rather than beginning another long race without a break? For this month, here are my top three. Why three? One wasn’t quite enough (although I’ll boil it all down to one in the end), and any more than three really won’t happen. I won’t do all four or five.

1. Write outside my genre. After working a long time on a literary novel, I think a little cross-training is appropriate. I could go the short story route, but novel to short story doesn’t seem to be enough of a genre-buster, despite the differences in the forms. Instead, I’m going to start a screenplay that’s been bouncing around in my head for a while. I may never finish it, but I’m really excited to tackle the dialogue and conflict that’s necessary in a screenplay. In this last novel, I worked hard to break it into beats and scenes, searching for the conflict between characters at each moment. A screenplay will demand that I get stronger at this, and look more deeply at story structure. Plus, I’m always hoping to grow with dialogue–especially how it can raise conflict without always devolving into a shouting match.

Poetry, too, is a favorite of mine. I love writing poetry. But I don’t think it’s what I need right now. That is, I don’t need to work on rhythm and the attractiveness of my prose as much as I need to work on making things happen.

2. Take notes. I’m not a strict note-taker by nature, though I’ve come to realize that I don’t hold on to ideas unless I write them down. But this is simpler. Throughout the month, I’m going to spend some time each day taking notes: notes on what I see and felt and heard during a walk, notes on how I felt at a party, notes on how the evening sun shines through my daughter’s hair. I’ll note story ideas, should any come (and they usually do if I pay attention to them). I’ll record some dialogue (see no. 1 above). It’s a chance to refocus–and perhaps begin a new practice that aids in my writing.

3. Reach out. It’s not uncommon for me to think how I ought to call/text/email someone, and maybe even put this person’s name on my daily “To do” list, only to fail at reaching out. But writing is a lonely, lonely hobby, and my writer friends, I’m sure, would appreciate a note as much as I would appreciate one from them. Beyond my beta readers, it’s always helpful to talk with others struggling through their work, to offer encouragement and find some of my own. Especially as I take a break, it’s like I’m at the raft before treading water for another hour: my friends are out there in the water. I may as well encourage them before going back out, too.

All of this, of course, adds up to the idea of refilling my well. This is the mindset I need after a novel. Not stop and rest, but refill. Rest, too often, degrades into the aforementioned sweatpants. But refilling it a conscious effort. It’s doing new things to ensure I’m fresh for the next revision. It’s also celebrating what I’ve accomplished.

As a sports fan, I think of this whenever a team cuts down the nets, wins the Super Bowl, and confetti comes flying down. It’s a real moment of accomplishment, of stopping. They go to Disney World and talk shows; they rest. And, for a month or two, they refill their wells before beginning the process again.

We need more confetti parties for finished novels (though it would be a quiet, depressing party). Absent that, we need to make it a practice to refill our wells after the championship game: to rest, to do things that energize and prepare you for the next push.

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Revision is Development

In continuing the recent trend of this blog actually living up to its moniker, I offer an insight into the everyday world of a living, breathing, unsuccessful writer.  Below is a first draft from my latest novel, and the revision that I worked on this weekend — a revision that will be followed by two or three more before I have the novel where I want it.

The road was black and green spilled onto its edges before everything disappeared into darkness.  You could not stop the grass from growing here in Kentucky, and the weeds.  It had been a wet summer; the rains didn’t let up until a couple of weeks ago.  I liked driving through the hills because I had to downshift and it kept me awake.  I tried the radio but knew that unless I was passing by a tower at the time, I could never get any signal.  Static, with faint mists of voices like they were dead and trying to communicate with me across the great divide.  It didn’t bother me too much, but I worried about tomorrow afternoon.  That’s exactly what I worried about.  After a night and a morning in the car, when the sun hung in the sky at four o’clock, that would be terrible to have no other voices.  Late afternoon was always the worst time of the day.  The day was dying and you knew you didn’t have too much light left, but it wasn’t yet night or even sunset.  It was just day stretched out like a desert, with nothing to do but wait for night to come and its peaceful or terrifying darkness.  The darkness doesn’t matter, only that it is a change.  I imagine the same thing happens in the morning, during the dullness of night an hour or two before the sun rises, but I’m never awake at that time.  Maybe tonight.  Maybe tonight.

And, the edits from Sunday:

The road was black, but green spilled onto its edges before everything disappeared into darkness.  It had been a wet summer; the rains didn’t let up until a couple of weeks ago, and everything grew without limit: the Bermuda grass and foxtail grass and thistle, all mixed together and going to seed and awaiting the judgment of winter.  Trees, though, clutched the rolling hills, their roots deep and intertwined in the limestone, and grass only grew at the edges of these forests.  I liked driving the hills with the trees, because there was a majesty to them and they would survive the winter, because I had to downshift and it kept me awake.  I turned the radio on, briefly, but only heard fragments of voices against the white static; voices like ghosts.  Or, voices like God trying to say something, but there was too much static and I was driving away.

I needed to reach Memphis tomorrow afternoon.  My radio could find some voice then, among the voices of the city, because late afternoon was the cruelest time: the sun beats and day stops like evening will never come, and we sit with our memory of the morning and desire for the evening, like we are neither living nor dead.  So for that time, I wanted a radio.

You can see some of the development that has come from my revision.  First, the sentences (I believe) are clearer, and I found the detail of the Bermuda grass by going back and working harder to envision the roadside.

Moreover, the first excerpt became too rambling for me — it felt like I was trying to channel Holden Caulfield, with a little more poetry.  By revising and focusing a bit longer on the grass, the radio, even though the thoughts of the narrator move similarly, the second version rambles less.

In focusing on the time of day, I tied the revised version to his overall journey, and then threw in some T.S. Eliot to help portray his thoughts/feelings.  Of course, just at that moment of gravitas, he isn’t someone overly deep, so he backs off and asserts his need for the radio.

I’m also playing with some themes — death (which ties in with Eliot’s “Wasteland”), and a strained conception of God, which made its way into the second (actually, third or fourth) draft.

So, a small window into the inner workings of a subsequent draft.  One of the most important messages I remember from grad school is that: revision IS development.  We cannot help but add a fuller conception of characters and landscape and theme as we revise.

I’d love to hear thoughts (anyone like the first one better?), questions, musings…